Sprawling complex on Fort Bliss houses nearly 10,000 Afghans, still growing
Nearly 10,000 Afghans are currently being housed at the Doña Ana Range Complex on Fort Bliss, 35 miles north of Downtown El Paso, the post commander said during a press conference Friday.
The complex has undergone a dramatic and rapid expansion in order to house thousands of Special Immigrant Visa applicants and vulnerable Afghans who were recently evacuated from Afghanistan following the withdrawal of U.S. troops last month.
On Aug. 17, total capacity at the complex was 1,800. Now that it has reached 10,000, the focus has shifted toward expanding quality-of-life support for Afghans at Fort Bliss, said said Maj. Gen. Sean Bernabe, commanding general of the 1st Armored Division. That includes tent-based religious facilities, a call center, increased Wi-Fi capacities, and even plans to add lights to the new soccer field so that the Afghans can play soccer and cricket at night.
Media were provided a tour of the Fort Bliss refugee facilities on Friday.
An Army representative said 82 tents have been added to provide sleeping quarters for 8,200 people and additional tents are being erected daily. Over 80 flights with Afghan nationals have arrived on Fort Bliss since last month, flown on a combination of C-17s, C-130s and commercial 747 planes.
Officials speaking during the tour of the facility asked not to be identified by name.
Upon arrival, all Afghans are tested for COVID-19 and offered the vaccine. For some seeking humanitarian parole to reside in the United States, being vaccinated against COVID-19 is a condition of that parole, a DHS representative said. All Afghans undergo substantial vetting prior to arriving in the United States, a State Department official said.
Among the Afghans at Fort Bliss, about 30% are children, including “a handful” of unaccompanied children who are being processed by the Department of Health and Human Services, an Army representative said.
Fewer than 200 Afghans who have arrived at Fort Bliss have elected to leave. Although the Afghans at Fort Bliss are free to go and are not being detained, they would lose resettlement benefits if they left prior to undergoing processing for resettlement. Resettlement benefits include assistance with housing, a living stipend and other hands-on assistance.
Bernabe said the efforts at Fort Bliss to host Afghans have been a “whole government approach,” and emphasized the coordination between agencies and non-governmental sites working at the facility.
Representatives from the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, the Army and a wide range of NGOs led a tour throughout the facility for a small press group. The tour included a visit to a sleeping tent, where cots are arranged in close rows, some privacy screens are set up to subdivide tents and 100 people sleep per tent, each provided with linens and hygiene products.
A visit to the dining hall included a discussion of the food being prepared for Afghans. An Army representative said efforts have been made to improve the cultural appropriateness of the food, including bringing experts in Afghan cuisine on-site to guide the food contractor on how to cook using Afghan seasoning. (The Army spokesperson declined to identify the contractor.)
When asked about a recent viral tweet by an Afghan at Fort Bliss complaining of the food quality and portions, an Army representative said that he sat down with that guest the next day following the tweet, and has requested his assistance and advice for improving the food quality.